In Gratitude to a Friend: John Blackstone
by Steve Nelson, Amicus Communications Director
Sometimes one of the hidden blessings of a loss is that we see more clearly the gifts we had been given.
It is in that bittersweet intersection between gratitude and loss that we at Amicus find ourselves at the passing of a true friend.
John Blackstone passed away yesterday. John had volunteered at our agency for over two decades, and we had grown to rely on him as a voice of reason, a mentor, a spokesperson and an advocate for those the system would not listen to.
Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm remembers how John first came to volunteer, around the time of the first Gulf War. She said John approached her at church and told her how frustrated he was by the killing and violence of the Gulf War. He decided his response was to volunteer for Amicus. When she asked why, John said he couldn’t do much about the violence in the Middle East but he COULD help in a small way by responding restoratively to the violence he saw here in his own community.
John volunteered for the Amicus One to One program and he stayed in that role from 1990 to his passing yesterday. He was matched over periods of many years each with four different inmates. Amicus’ Russel Balenger recalls that John’s matches were with inmates who often had significant challenges to overcome, and John saw a couple of his One to One friends return to prison because of mistakes made after release. One of his One to One friends died of injuries in a car crash while evading police. John felt those losses like anyone would if they had happened to a close friend, but he stayed with the program.
“He was easy to match because he could handle whatever you put in front of him,” Russel recalls. “He knew how to get beyond all the BS and get to the real issues. He could bring clarity to situations that seemed hopeless.”
Chris Doege, Amicus Director of Reentry Services, remembers John as one of Amicus’ four “Beatles.” There were four volunteers, John, Paul, George and Ray who formed the backbone of the first volunteer groups who worked with MnCOSA. MnCOSA, Minnesota Circles of Support and Accountability, was a new pilot program Amicus established with the Department of Correction in order to reach out to inmates with sex offenses on their records who were reentering society. Chris recalls that “The Beatles” didn’t get that nickname solely for the fact that the names nearly matched up with the Liverpool version. It was because these four were among the best volunteers Amicus had ever worked with. They were rock stars.
Chris said John stood out because he understood that it wasn’t about him as a volunteer. It was about the match.
“He REALLY understood what the program is about,” Chris said. “It’s about making a connection with someone and letting that connection take you where it will.”
At Amicus this Thanksgiving, our connection with John has taken us down a byway with only one sign along the side of a long and winding road. The sign is not flashy or oversized or particularly colorful. Still, it comes from the hearts of people in prison, people who are staying out of prison, fellow volunteers and staff. As we pass these words, we will nod, remember John, and continue traveling that road to a more just society.
“Thank You, Friend.”